ROGER CHAPMAN: DIARY OF A ROCK STAR GONE AWOL
by Pete Feenstra - Real Music Magazine c. 1992
If Roger Chapman's career were to be considered as analogous to a horse race, there would have to be a stewards enquiry. For quite simply this veteran of one of Britain's greatest ever bands Family, and the powerful Streetwalkers has spent more than a decade becoming a national folk hero in Germany, while his profile back home has been practically zilch. His magnificent vibrato remains, as does the clever and humorous song writing. So what exactly caused one of Britain's greatest rock vocalists to spend the last dozen or so years earning his corn in Germany and beyond. Pete Feenstra spent a couple of engaging hours with the Leicester legend to try and unfold the mystery.
"Firstly there are some statistics to digest. Roger Chapman has recorded over a dozen albums, played countless dates in the last decade, and nearly charted in this country with Mike Oldfield with 'Shadow On The Wall'. Clearly Chappo still has much to offer.
"I suppose the consistent output is because I'm always writing ... busy, busy. I don't know if I always enjoy it, I clocks me up if I'm writing, and I have to get it down, otherwise I get frustrated.
"I never really plan things in advance. I'm not really the sort of person who thinks too much about tomorrow. I just get on with things and do it."
As if too prove the point Chappo has just completed his latest Euro tour in support of a new album. Produced by Mike Vemon, 'UnderNo Obligation' is a return to Chapman's pre Zipper style, with well crafted songs, a dash of humour and of coursc the voice.
"It's out in the usual places ... Germany, Austria, etc, but I don't think anyony’s very interested over here. I get pissed off with it. These arc the things that drive me to work elsewhere in the first place."
Clearly Chapman is unimpressed with the biz back home.
"There are times, I do think about having a concerted crack at it again. And I suppose even by doing these dates, I'm having a go. But you can't easily forget what happened in the past ... I've been blanked, slagged off etc, and you are supposed to just forget about these things. But in all honesty you don't ... bollocks! I must have something going for me. I can't be as bad as they all make out. So I'll have another go and see what happens.
"With 'Under No Obligation', I don't expect too much. After all I'm not Jason Donovan. Record companies have to put thcir asses on the line a bit, and thcy're not prepared to do it for me."
Making sense of Chapman's last dozen or more years requires and orderly chronology of his output. But it's significant to recount what happened in the case of his mid 80's success with, Mike Oldfield, a single that even made Top Of The Pops.
"Really? I didn't even know that. With Mike's track, nobody from Virgin was really interested in me. 'Cos, make no mistake, that song could have come from any one of my albums at the time, it was that close. But it was Mike's namc that was on it, and Virgin probably thought that's clever...Oh and look it's Roger Chapman on vocals, what a novelty wc'll play that. Lots of people apparently likcd it, but nobody dared play any of my material. And it's all been a bit like that really.
"People occasionally talk about me being reborn but I'm just a geczcr who sings and writes, and tries to have some success, or a sensc of existence (laughs). I just can't be bothered with it all..."
And if you are getting the impression of someone who has thrown in the towel you are being grossly mislead by an interviewee with as much to say about the rnusic scene on tape, as he does expend cncrgy on stage. The truth appears to be Chappo is itching to play back homc again despite the disappointments. And they all started after the release of the quite superb 'Live In Hamburg' in '1979.
"This is whcre the conflict lies...'Live In Hamburg' did get some good reviews, but it didn't lcad anywhcre over here. And you nevcr know the reasons for these things. Maybc l've not got thc face for it - the right music - I just can't be bothcred. "
Yct mc thinks he can. Why? Just listen to the quality of some of the albums he's put out. Therc's a rare consistency that wavers only around the Zipper period. But let's go back to the original 'Chappo' solo album in 1979.
"We put the 'Chappo' album out and got good reviews. After a six-month period of near euphoria, I was dead meat. Then the slagging comes again from the critics - and it was heavy at the timc. I mean I'd been battering my brains out for years in the UK. So when I got the chance to have a go on the continent, without all the slagging off - you know, people actually admire what I do over there... I went over there. I got some bcnefit of the doubt. So you could say I was bitter, yes.
"After Streetwalkers folded I didn't really have any plans. Even when Family finished it was a case of drawing on a few friends, making some new ones and seeing what happened. Of course it's not profitable to do that. The Family/ Streetwalkers period was quite an enclosed one anyway. We tended to pen ourselves in to what we were doing and writing. Basically I met some folks who introduced me to Dave Courtney who produced us."
Thereafter unfolds a tale of a batch of albums made under duress, wafer-thin budgets, against a background of running out of time. 'Mail Order Magic' was the studio follow-up to the excellent 'Live In Hamburg'.
"That's when the difficulties started. The label in the UK folded, so we had to finish the album fast to even get an album out. It was a case of jumping from studio to studio, you know, two bob here, three bob there, and finish it off as best we could. Line Records in Germany gave us some backing, which helped a little, but then all the shit started going on in between, you know, which wasn't very positive really. It ended up as an album with three or four good songs, but could have been better produced.
Regarding his dealing with the biz Chappo is the first to admit his own circumspect approach.
"I suppose the biz has never been that well connected to start with and from ourpointof view there neverwas alotof acumen as regards actually creating anything. It was always more a case of if someone shows some willing ... we'll give it a go."
Whatever the problems, 'Mail Order Magic' produced the classic 'Higher Ground', the powerful 'Making The Same Mistake', and 'He Was She Was', later to bccome half the title of a later classic double live set: 'He Was She Was, You Was, We Was'.
And things positively prospered in Chapman's adopted musical home (he has continued to live in theUK all through his musical isolation here). 'Hyenas OnlyLaugh For Fun' became the Album of the Year in Gerrnany, and spawned the live opus 'Juke Box Mama' - a vehicle for Geoffrey Whitehorn's guitar skills. 'The Long Goodbye' equalled anything RC had written five years before, and apart from the humorous title track, the album also included the show-stopping 'Prisoner' - a glorious showcase for a fast maturing voice.
"In retrospect, if you include 'Mango Crazy', this was a good period for me. Wc got album of the year, and I did the thing with Mike, so you could say things were blossoming, even seriously booming away, especial in Germany. If anything was happening in the UK I wasn't told, and I think those times have gone. I got a pit pissed off by the attitude over here against me."
In contrast to the ostrich-like British music scene, Chapman's still exuberant stage act, and splendid material had caught the attention of live TV across Europe in the shape of Rock Palast - a live rock show broadcast just about all over Europc, save for here.
"Even that was a while ago - around 1983-84 1 think. Really I'm not a person you can ignore, it's a case of like me or hate mc when I'm on stage, and the Rock Palast worked very well for me."
Recording-wise, Chappo and friends had come back to London to cut a brace of almost nostalgic albums, under the pseudonym of the Riff Burglars - a kind of homage to the past. It was a classy mix of rock'n'roll, soul R&B and blues. "They were basically all the songs I'd sung from the Farinas days, through Family, onwards. The influences were there in the writing during the Family time. Family went from a blues orientation to a more classic orientation, and the classical definitely didn't come from me ... more from the Jim King or Charlie Whitney side. Mine was always the rock'n'roll and blues end of things in the guttural sense."
By the time of 'The Shadow Knows' the music had apparently got heavier - a case of too much Whitchorn and not enough Chapman.
"Yeah," laughs Roger. "It was getting that way, and Geoffrey is a very strong character. By the time of 'Zipper', we split. I'm not blaming him for anything, but he's a strong personality. I mean I like rock'n'roll, the brash end of it if you like, but not Metal... If anything I'm more into the R&B, even Country end of things.
"The problem was the production. Believe it or not I hate producing. I got several whispers at the time ... you know, why don't I produce myself, but I've not got the patience for it. I would end up leaving things to others when I'm supposed to be in charge, and that's what happened."
The result was a split and a sudden artistic shift for Chapman, on the Bolan brothers-produced 'Techno Prisoners'. Despite the characteristic Chapman title, the highly polished, finished product proved an anathema for his new found Gerrnan fans.
"After splitting with Geoffrey, I told the record company I wasn't going to produce again. I kept coming up with these albums with four or five good songs, recorded with too little money, and too many money saving techniques. So the company found the Bolan Brothers of 'Rock Me Amadeus' fame. I said OK thinking if we could meet half way, we might achieve some success, but we never quite met up in the middle, although I really liked the Temptations thing. But it was like the meeting of two different cultures. But there was the usual running out of money and time thing, all that shit. And to be fair they didn't have a chance to complcte the job properly. By the time of the release, I 'd reached a peak sales wise, and I don't think it did any better than the others. Above all I got a terrible slagging for it. People did not like the idea of me working with the Bolans. It was so bad, in Europe, the biz came to distrust me, because I was a folk hero in a sense, stemming right back to the Family days, you know real music etc, and I quickly came to realise the connotations that go with it - you know I've shit on somebody's doorstep seriously!"
"I just went on to make another album. But because of that experience, and what with Geoffrey and the electronic drum thing, I said 'No more machines (laughs) I'm going to get a band."
Walking The Cat
In effect Roger acquired a studio band, in Tim "the bastard" Hinkley (great player though), Geoff Seopadi on drums, Joe Hubbard bass etc and a couple of different guitarists," and the result was 'Walking The Cat'.
At this juncture Chappo readily admits he's a tough act to handle.
"The producers did a great job, Terry the engineer and an American producer. We had a hassle starting the album ... money problems plus they did well to put up with my rough and ready approach in the studio - you know, high on excitement, rather than technique. Considering the shit going down they did a great job. But then we argued about finance and they've never been seen since ... these things happen ... I even got a slagging off for the remake of 'Toys' (originally on 'Mango Crazy') for pinching Rap. I told the produccr I'd cut the song eight years ago, and he turned round and exclaimed; 'You've invented rap" (laughs)."
The Chappo story almost came ; full circle with 'Hybrid & Lowdown , an album that saw the return of Dave Courtney, but he, as Roger found to his cost, was more into insurance than production values. And so to the current 'Under No Obligation' album, under the production eye and ear of Mike Vernon.
"I wanted someone with a genuine feel for music, and Mike was great. It was the first time I'd worked with someone like a musician in the studio for ages, plus he obviously understood the tapes side of things etc."
If you missed out on any of the latter, Castle have just compiled 'Kick It Back', effectively the best cuts from the excellent 'Walking The Cat' and 'Hybrid'. It includes a true gem, 'The House Behind The Sun', a number that will surely take its place in Chappo's top ten tunes.
Finally the conversation veered back to the past, and Family's farewell tour: and almost inevitably Tony Ashton. "Oh, you mean the ultimate bar room band, and how to mix booze with music. (Chapman dissolves in laughter) What you have to remember about the last Family tour was we went out on 'Bandstand', with 'My Friend the Sun' and 'Burlesque' as the singles. Another relevant point is that if I release a new album now, it won't be until the following tour that people have caught on, and want to hear the old stuff. And 'Bandstand' was probably the highlight of our recordings."
Of the celebrated or otherwise incident with Bill Graham. Chapman remains ambivalent.
As legend has it, a flying mikestand from RC's direction hit BG on the nut and Family's cred and presence Stateswise flew out he window.
"It all got to be a bit of a myth. We actually did do some US gigs later in 1972 with Elton John, and he promoted the gig in San Francisco. We were apprehensive about it - you know and he was there back stage, and I hadn't seen him before. All this nonsense was going on, and there we were dying a death. Anyway, he said (I was a bit ... you know; 'could be a bit of trouble', 'cos I was getting carried away by the mythology of the whole thing) laughs. And I'm walking backstage, and he said: 'OK. What is this thing about me and you?' And I went - 'Oh fuck off. Ask your publicist!' and walked the other way, and that was the only words I ever spoke to him." (Laughs)
So what about the incident then?
"Well it was an accident - I don't know if it even hit him. A mikestand went one way (pregnant pause)...'eh bollocks' and I came off stage, and he was ranting and raving. We were up and coming, on a bill consisting off Hendrix, Cream and it was only those heavyweights that persuaded him not to have us thrown out of the theatre."
Bang up to date. Roger is particularly happy with 'Kick It Back', and he's in great physical shape.
"I enjoy doing lots of things, but enjoy singing most, and that's become my priority. I've done all the deadlies from fags right through the card, and if I can't sing as a result why bother with that nonsense."
Right now he's raring to go; as ever unrepentant about his stage antics.
"People have been telling me for years to go to the US, but no-one's ever invited me. But to be honest, I'm probably a bit too aggressive for them, and I talk back to the audiences. They don't realise if they say something to me, I'm seriously entitled to say something back.
"I'm a geezer on stage and I'm reacting to an audience. It's not an imaginary thing in the sky - it's there and real, it's what live music is all about."
Special thanks to Dave Eames.